By Alison Green.
From the book Los Loss
What would it mean to explore the theme of vanitas in contemporary photography? To put it more specifically, how would one go about making vanitas pictures that don’t immediately resemble the genre we know from art history? This is the paradox of Trevor Appleson’s work: on the one hand it is documentary, or uses a documentary approach. On the other, it displays a perennial interest in death, both real (as in slaughtered animals), symbolic (broken eggs, flowers, bubbles, fire), and cultural (grave sites, people living on the edge). Appleson’s work — via his use of series, via the method he uses to create every picture, and in terms of an orientation towards certain subject matters — creates an experience of capture, or duration, that is both inherent to the photographic medium (it stops time), and opposed to its effects (it contributes to life getting faster). In each of his photographs, Appleson creates a pause. This has little to do with the way a vanitas picture looks, but everything to do with what it means.
To begin, here’s a short definition of a vanitas picture: broadly speaking, it is a genre of painting developed in Northern Europe in the sixteenth century, which explored themes of time passing, the transience of worldly plea-sure, and the certainty of death. Vanitas pictures usually took the form of still lifes, arrangements of objects symbolising these concerns, such as half-eaten food or flowers on the edge of fading, a candle, a skull, even money and objects of luxury. It’s important for me to say that Appleson does not self-consciously create vanitas pictures; this is my reading of his work. Another writer might take the position it’s a mannered form of photojournalism; someone else might discuss it in terms of documentary style. I’m not sure Appleson himself knows he’s been making vanitas pictures, as death appears everywhere, not only in the ones he calls still lifes. I think the theme finds him. I think he’s drawn to it as a result of his enquiry into two photographic issues: its realism and the way it creates stillness. What Appleson does know is that these two aspects of photography are deeply at odds — one is about telling the truth and the other about something artificial — but their admixture makes for extraordinarily compelling images.
To show what I mean, let’s start with an image that literally depicts death: Death at Sunset. Fig. #2 It’s one of a series of photographs that comprise a narrative of a pig butchering. In the one I’m interested in, the pig has been killed but not yet cut up. What do you see? First, the open eye and mouth, the rope tied to her hind leg (it is a female — see the nipples? neat as a row of buttons). A vertical wooden post, with a crowbar held against it with more rope. The dirt ground is flat and hard, with evidence of feet having passed over it, perhaps the pig’s last struggle. There is blood, but very little, on the ground near the pig’s snout, and on her chest. This is the fatal wound, possibly so recent it hasn’t had time to bleed more. It is, however, difficult to register death in this picture. It’s possible to believe the pig is asleep, if you ignore the blood. It doesn’t depict the pig being killed, nor the gaping, bloody carcass in the image that follows. This photograph might seem gratuitous, because it doesn’t add anything to the story. And yet, it is the most unsettling of the images, precisely because it’s not clear whether it’s an image of a sleeping pig or a dead one. This implicates photography’s own process of turning subjects into objects. The attentive viewer will know the pig is dead, not because of the blood, but because of the crowbar, waiting there, clean and unused, but nonetheless maliciously. Photographic meaning is often made through objects you might not even notice in real life.
Appleson took the photographs compiled in this book in Mexico in 2007. There were two trips: first, a recce with a 35mm camera, followed by a longer one where he used large-format cameras and, returning to many of the places he had been, photographed things and people more intently, often restaging scenes or objects he had photographed on the first trip. For this second group of pictures, Appleson used the simple yet effective photographic method he adopted eight or nine years ago, a black cloth backdrop stretched out on a frame and set up behind the subject. This gives his pictures neutral, effectively nonexistent backgrounds. Appleson also photographs in the natural, raking light of the “magic hour,” the transition from dark to light and light to dark at the beginning and end of the day. Each and every person (or thing) is submitted to the same format, to similar generous light, and a separation from his, her or its surroundings. This is the
method he adopted for a long series of work he took over the years 2000 –2004 in South Africa — his country of birth — which were collected in the book Free Ground (2006). Since then, Appleson has used this portable “studio” on projects in Rome and Israel, and at home in London. Fig. #3
An important touchstone for Appleson’s development of his method is Irving Penn’s series of so-called ethnographic studies, taken in places like Peru and New Guinea. In them Penn used a portable studio (off-white background paper that extended over the ground, like a big C) and photographed anonymous people, rather than the celebrities or professional models he ordinarily captured on film. In both artists’ work, the striking effect of the procedure is how the subjects are isolated from their context. It’s as if they’re put under scrutiny, and somehow made more human, pulled away from the creature comforts or paraphernalia of everyday life. Anything that does make it into the picture gains a special weight of meaning. Penn often gave away the conceit, letting the edge of the backdrop sit just within the frame of the photograph, whereas the backgrounds of Appleson’s photographs are so complete as to become invisible. Another difference is that Penn’s paper covered the ground, which made a cove; Appleson’s is only a vertical screen, which lets him include the ground when he chooses to. Looking closely at Appleson’s photographs, you realise there’s a lot of choice in the placement of the screen; things are not put upon it, it is inserted into a location. Indeed, even the differences between black and white are very important. White is modern (and I’m thinking here of Richard Avedon’s work rather than Penn’s), pristine, empty of affect. Black signifies deep space. Black is the absence of light; white is overillumination. In Appleson’s photographs, especially the still lifes, black is an element of the composition, filling the frame, pushing colour forward, re-emphasising the light cast into the object (or person) in the picture.
There is another key difference between Appleson’s approach and Penn’s. Penn’s work is (still) unproblematically denoted as “ethnographic” despite the substantial critiques connecting such scientific claims to the discourse of colonialism, and photography’s role in both. Penn made a few playful gestures, such as photographing hippies and Hell’s Angels in San Francisco, yet it’s clear he saw this work as an antidote to his commercial or studio work. This creates a closed system where Penn’s “freedom” is gained at the expense of the Others he photographed. Appleson takes the method but not the ideology. He insists that it can accommodate any subject matter, far away or close to home, human or inert. This changes the terms of engagement. The work Appleson did in South Africa was not travel photography. It was a working out of his relationship to his home. And although his subsequent projects have taken him to new places, Appleson makes no claim to any kind of science in his approach. He did, however, mine Penn’s work again when he decided to explore making still lifes, looking this time to several different series, including 70s close-ups of debris Penn found in the street, mostly photographed in black and white, and colour images of bits of food and consumer culture, archly arranged. The differences between Penn and Appleson are paramount: both make exact and beautiful images through a mastery of technique. But that’s where Penn wanted to be in the end; Appleson’s ambitions are oriented towards something more problematic — beauty, yes, but also a demonstration of the complex roles taken by the photographer and the subject of the photograph.
Appleson’s Free Ground photographs — comprised of several series’ of portraits — begs a comparison between him and the German Neue Sachlichkeit photographer August Sander. Interested in uniforms, Appleson set up his backdrop in certain locations to draw in certain people. A street near a fruit factory provided women fruit packers, parking lots and busy areas near schools and universities presented students, and beaches in and around Cape Town gave him access to the largest cross-section of society — among them middle-class swimmers, street kids and drug addicts. Fig. #7 Using series provides the context that is ordinarily absent from photographs of individuals, and from Appleson’s pictures in particular because of their isolation from any background. The pictures represent people as “types” as well as a distinct individuals; repetition emphasises difference as well as sameness. Sander’s life project was a series of portraits of Germans, organised into archetypes ranked by social class and profession. Fig. #8 They often display real tenderness towards the people Sander photographed, but his politics are troubling: the presumption in his turning individuals into types, reducing people to their economic class, and the implication (contested amongst Sander’s critics) that you can read a person’s character in a photograph. Appleson’s work can appear similar, but is in fact opposed to these idealisms. The objective impulse is similar — a desire to record what is really there. But Appleson’s work also reflects a contemporary sense that communities and individuals are unstable, contingent, and incommensurable; no larger truths can be garnered from them, no matter how precisely they are represented in pictures. Indeed, the artificiality of Appleson’s photographs of people denotes how far away they are from claiming to be secure in their representations. Appleson is actively engaged with the notion of the “contract” that exists between photographer and sitter, which goes beyond the money he sometimes paid (the opposite was true with Sander — he was paid). Appleson said he rarely directed the sitters in these pictures, he merely asked them to pose and counted down out loud until the shutter clicked. He also described the experience as “a rare privilege” and “intimate”.
What resulted in Free Ground are extraordinary images of people showing themselves both self-possessed and vulnerable. There are all the ordinary fictions of “self” played out in them, as well as reality in surfeit here — too much spills over in these pictures to make them conventionally flattering or merely descriptive. As I argued in a short essay in that book, there was something democratic in this project; there was Appleson’s gesture toward recording and representing individuals who might normally register very lightly in political life, and there was the space he provided that gave each person who entered in an equality of sorts. The decontextualisation served here not to disempower the sitter but symbolise impartiality, like a voting booth. This isn’t straightforward, of course: you can’t discount the lure of being photographed, nor the potential for misunderstanding between what Appleson wanted and what actually drew his sitters in. Far from providing any actual power, photography offers a tinsel promise of notoriety. Benjamin Buchloh pointed this out in an essay on Thomas Struth’s portraits, writing about Walter Benjamin’s belief that “mechanical reproduction” was essentially emancipatory. Fig. #9 Buchloh argued, rather, “the democratic potential of portrait photography [in the early twentieth century] unleashed its dialogical counterpart: to provide a new image of the subject as star.” This indeed is the reality today: photographic notoriety is more often corrosive than empowering. There should be no illusions, no thinking that any of Appleson’s subjects got anything more than temporary pleasure from having their photograph taken, or brief succour from the modest fee he paid them. And yet, seen as a whole, Free Ground also provides a measure of how unequal are the experiences of black South Africans, a decade and more after the end of Apartheid. Fig. #10
In his work since he finished the Free Ground project, Appleson has continued to rely upon the black backdrop and dramatic natural light that constitute his method. On the other hand, he has both expanded and shifted his practice, making it more complex even as the photographs themselves display the same combination of scrutiny and idealisation of their subjects. First, he has begun to photograph things as well as people, explicitly adding still life photographs to his repertoire of portraits. Second, he has started to intervene much more actively with his sitters, directing some actions, or arranging objects for them to engage with. In other instances, Appleson has decided to document someone doing some activity in an extended narrative. Fig. #11 Appleson is exploring the process of making a photograph (that is, constructing the scene it depicts) rather than just choosing a scene, or letting people come to him, although many of his pictures still record people or things as they present themselves. Lastly — and perhaps this is the key to the changes — he has begun taking photographs in places where he is a stranger. In the work compiled in this book, Appleson is no longer pursuing a personal project, and there is a level of experimentation unprecedented in the rigorous seriality of Free Ground.
When I began work on this essay, I wanted to avoid an approach typical to art-critical writing about contemporary art, where the writer glosses a handful of timely art historical ideas and connects them to the work by doing a bit of visual analysis, or cata-logues the artist’s similarities to other artists, both contemporary and historical, in effect giving him or her a pedigree. Doing this might contextualise Appleson’s photographs, but it wouldn’t get at their meaning. I also felt distaste for a lot of the critical writing on photography, which seems to suffer from an overdetermination of photography’s content. In this case, there’s a lot of description and no small amount of advocacy, but very little analysis. The glut of words seems born out of an anxiety about pictorial narrative, an anxiety that photographs can’t be left to speak on their own. Or maybe it’s an inability on the part of the writer to speak that lang-uage. Mine is not a critique of discourse itself (how could it be, when this essay grew from an intended 5,000 words to, at its most bloated, 9,000?) rather a critique of writing about art that explains, or provides the requisite “critical context,” but offers no interpretation, and no historical understanding. It matters in writing about Appleson’s work because he is that rather rare thing now, an artist who works absolutely through intuition, and someone who doesn’t have a ready explanation for his work (is it possible this is due to his not having gone to art school?). The key question for me is how you write about something that doesn’t speak ahead of writing. What follows in the remainder of this essay is an attempt to do so, first by tracking what I’ve been calling Appleson’s “method,” and then the importance (but not overimportance) of his adopting pictorial genres that originate in Renaissance painting. The idea at the heart of this is that Appleson’s work is the starting point. It is where both invention and ideas are located. But the end point needs to account for his strategy in relation to his own place in history.
In this new work brought together in Los Loss, Appleson expands the narrow seriality of his previous work, even as he sticks to his method of photographing his subject matter. It’s worth pointing out that the effects of breaking out are subtle in some cases: the ground is now often included in the frame whereas the earlier portraits tended to be from the knees up. This establishes a measure of context that was not there before (the object or person is situated). There is the change where Appleson’s sitters are not always looking at the camera. In some, they are absorbed in an activity, in others Appleson asks that they gaze into the middle distance rather than directly into the camera lens. This has the interesting effect of making such images not portraits, but something else, which shows how such a minor pictorial device changes the meaning of a picture entirely. There are the photographs of the animal slaughters. Fig. #12 These come close to straight documentary, along the lines of a photo-essay; the series in these cases establish a narrative rather than repeat a type. These works raise an issue around performance that wasn’t there before. There are also the photographs where Appleson has pointedly intervened in the scenario, directing his sitters to do certain things, in some cases absurd or unnatural. And then there are the photographs he describes as still lifes, pictures of inanimate objects he either found or arranged; these he treats as he does his human subjects — placing the studio behind them, isolating them even though in many cases these objects are fixed to the ground.
In this new taxonomy, each type of work has extended one of the key strategies of the Free Ground series. Take the photographs where Appleson has directed the activities of the sitters, what we might call the tableaux: the boxers crushing eggs, the pairs of prostitutes, people at a well, and the professional wrest-lers. Although all of these people begin as strangers to him, Appleson’s involvement with them is complex and demanding, and consequently the “contract” between subject and artist is quite different from the Free Ground work. It’s more sustained, and there’s potentially more agency involved. And yet, Appleson asks his subjects to move out of their professional, or daily mode. He asks the boxers to exert effort on something delicate, an egg. The whole apparatus — gloves, stance, musculature — becomes clumsy rather than proficient. In the photographs of prostitutes, which Appleson took in Mexico City at a refuge for ex-prostitutes, he asked women who did not know each other to pose together, doing quite ordinary — and intimate — acts: cutting fruit, blowing bubbles, brushing each other’s hair (in each, he paired a retired prostitute with a younger, active one). Fig. #13 The objects surrounding them were chosen by Appleson, and in no way do these pictures read as natural. What results is a kind of tension between expecting to see people representing themselves (asserting their freedom) and the strain of Appleson’s (mis)direction. It’s a simple procedure to ask a person to do something artificial, and the overall effect is to produce a form of mannerism. Nonetheless, it seems equally true that breaking a habit allows for something more human to be expressed to the camera. The boxers seem intimate and vulnerable in their concentration. Fig. #14 By contrast, where one might have expected tenderness, the prostitutes show very little emotion. The pictures of people at the well, which may have been the most spontaneous photographs of the type Appleson intervened in, end up seeming the most posed, perhaps due to the uncanny repetition in the people’s stance, and the fact you can’t see their faces. Fig. #15
In a sense, these photographs are about old themes of nature and culture — what expertise is made up of, what is “authentic” about a procedure or a gesture, and to what degree a person is defined by a role, to what degree the role is changed by the person. This issue is drawn into high relief by the humour of the photographs of the wrestlers. Fig. #16 In Mexico they are called luchadores, and differentiated from their American counterparts by wearing masks and their airborne stunts. In a classic move of decontextualisation, Appleson’s intervention — giving each man his choice of a cartoon-character piñata to destroy — acutely mobilises two distinct symbols of Mexican camp culture. Perhaps it’s not surprising that of all Appleson’s subjects, only the actual celebrities maintain some level of agency. The counterpoint to these photographs are not the wrestlers’ female attendants but the campesinos (farmers) on their way to market. Both series depict a subject with his or her professional apparatus, but the luchadores are in control of their own image, and thus display a better understanding of self-representation.
There are other images of people in this collection where Appleson returns to his earlier interest in uniforms and jobs, and he pursues them serially. Perhaps the most striking of these — which I would say includes the ranchers, campesinos, and the traditionally dressed Mexican girls — are the wrestlers’ attendants. Fig. #17 The oddness of these photographs — how interesting, even awkward, these young women appear — is due to a subtle demand Appleson made. He asked them to put their feet in a particular, destabilising place, and this minor adjustment seems to have cascaded upward through their bodies, terminating in their faces: vain and unguarded at the same time. There are other types of portraits too, that depict more “natural” actions, with Appleson stepping back, so to speak, to document the subject at their normal activity. These include the goat and pig slaughter series. Appleson points out these were people he met on his trip through the countryside. The young woman in jeans was from a family of butchers, and he was fascinated by her efficiency (she got a single drop of blood on her clothes) and by the normality of her job (just outside the frame were her children, playing, looking on, helping).
Last in my categorisation of Appleson’s new work (and this omits several stray images that cannot be defined so easily), there are the photographs of things, which he refers to as still lifes. These are mostly not arranged — with a few notable exceptions — but formalised by Appleson via the portable studio. There is something initially absurd about the attention so paid to things like sand grasses or a clothesline full of washing, but the impulse is to treat inanimate objects with the same attention as Appleson does people. Fig. #18 The “democratic” gesture holds here, as the act of photographing something makes it important, which only amplifies the beauty that can be found in the quotidian. In a sense, Appleson’s secondary foregrounding devices augment what a picture already does on its own — photographs always create new meaning via decontextualisation; Appleson’s backdrop does so further, a frame within a frame which redefines an accidental arrangement into something exquisite, waiting to be noticed. What has Appleson chosen to photograph? Vegetation, graves, goods for sale, and the equipment of city markets. A rough kitchen, and other convergences of nature and culture. On one level these pictures denote: they point out what radishes look like stacked in bulk; the idiosyncratic practice of hanging food and household tools from trees and plants; local flora; and, in what seems most characteristically Mexican, the particularities of graveside devotion. Fig. #19 Appleson’s choices here are for solid, ordinary things, not quite obviously aesthetic fodder. Then there are the still lifes Appleson set up, such as the burning piñatas, burning crates, and broken eggs. Fig. #20–22 Some, like the crates, rework situations Appleson witnessed on his first trip. The eggs were what remained after the boxers were finished. Appleson isn’t sure why he burned the piñatas; he had a carload of them, broken up after the shoot with the luchadores, and it seemed like the right thing to do. Here we see accidental vanitas images, representing excess on multiple levels, seized by Appleson to provide a meta-narrative for the book.
Appleson’s use of these different formats — still life, portraiture, and we can add so-called “genre scenes” (ordinary people engaged in work or play) — deserves some discussion. My claim that Appleson is in unconscious pursuit of vanitas pictures is supported by looking into some art history, where we see that many different types of painting dealt with the theme, not just still lifes. Let me reiterate that Appleson has not adopted these formats in a gambit to either invoke or pastiche the conventions of historical painting. He certainly would not wish a viewer to approach his work with them in mind. It is only after seeing a number of his photographs — in series, or against other forms within the group — that the borders between the different categories begin to be constructible. In other words, the “genres” Appleson works with are generated by his use of series on the one hand, and on the other as pictorial formats that exist, however generically, in our cultural moment. It was quite different in the past, however, and it may be helpful to make some of this history more concrete.
The different formats of painting I’ve been discussing were formalised when the French Academy of Art reorganised itself in the seventeenth century. Paintings were divided into history painting, portraiture, landscape and still life. As it was a move steeped in professionalisation, the different genres, as they were known, were stacked hierarchically. History painting was the most eleva-ted (and the paintings tended to be the biggest); still life and genre scenes sat at the bottom of the list. Artists had to specialise, and if you were talented and ambitious you were encouraged to tackle history painting, and so on down, such that ability and gumption got mapped onto subject matter. These divisions set up dualities internal to the system: the notable versus the ordinary (history painting was dubbed grand genre versus what in English are called genre scenes, or petit genre), narrative versus non-narrative, and horizontal versus vertical format. Codes of practice grew up around them. A portrait was considered more “real” than a history painting, where a certain level of idealisation was expected when an individual was raised to the level of history or myth. A still life in strictest terms meant people were absent, which allowed the viewer to focus on things, but it was disparaged for being lightweight, an arena for style over substance.
Now, there are some important things to say about this scenario. The first is that this “hierarchy of genres” was one of the structures that was challenged from the nineteenth century onwards by modern artists in their attack on academic art, on notions of aesthetic value, and on who had the authority over the rules of technique. The Impressionists, for example, painted scenes from everyday life in whichever format they desired. History was to be made out of present-day life and ordinary people. Several decades later, Cubist painters deconstructed both still life and portraiture, raising questions about what counts as realism. For example, in Picasso’s work, an actual rope replaced the depiction of a rope. Half a century later in the 1960s, the whole notion of medium (painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, etc., existing as distinct practices with separate histories) was reassessed, setting the agenda for our present, “post-medium” situation. What was a scenario stacked vertically is now more or less horizontal. Photography has undergone a radical reinvention since the 1960s, “used” by artists of all types, and become, in contemporary art terms, a practice for artists with high ambitions. Fine art photographers might similarly “use” a genre such as portraiture, but they would be unlikely to limit their practice to that. Nonetheless, in its own history, photography has always leaned toward the lower end of the hierarchy of genres, whether because it was a popular art, or because its invention coincided with the hierarchy’s levelling. (Jeff Wall’s work is notable in this way because of the play he made for the grand genre within a photographic practice).Fig. #23
There is clearly no hierarchy of genres within Appleson’s work; the issues he’s tracking — self-representation, attention to objects and people that might not be noticed, the organisation of (and challenge to) types — these run across the different formats of his work. Nonetheless, Appleson’s inclination towards certain genres reflects different projects he has undertaken. Portraiture suits the concerns about nation, politics and identity in Free Ground, and in subsequent images he made of kibbutzniks, army privates and heroin addicts in Israel. Fig. #24 Genre scenes are appropriate for working in a place that’s unfamiliar, as they conventionally depict characteristic activities of a community or place. It’s interesting to note that genre scenes were a popular form of travel photography in the nineteenth century, often portraying cultural or national stereotypes (importantly different from
ethnographic pictures). Appleson’s photographs work quite hard not to traffic in clichés, but he also provokes questions about identity through his interest in uniforms, professional roles, and other outward forms of representation. In Mexico, Appleson was drawn to evidence of abundance. He represents Mexico as a full, flowing place, awash with cheap commercial goods, fecund vegetation, a riot of colour, and the ever-presence of death. He also used the people he photographed there to demonstrate how different they are from First World urbanites. There’s an ethics as well as an ero-tics to Appleson’s sumptuous images: engaged in activities that are real and important to them but other to us, Appleson represents his subjects as self-determining. Nonetheless, the different formats push the enquiry in different directions.
Appleson’s photographs I’m calling genre scenes — of people engaged with activities — begs a comparison to Michael Fried’s landmark study, Ab-sortion and Theatricality: Painting and the Beholder in the Age of Diderot.
Fried identifies a “tradition of absorption” in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century painting, that is, the depiction of the subject of a painting as engrossed, reflective, oblivious to the viewer in various ways, or in some sort of reverie. Diderot calls it enchantment: “the pleasure of belonging to myself” and “the even sweeter pleasure of forgetting myself.” Fried links this to a concern for pictorial unity (an economy of the picture where everything holds together) such that painting, like its human subject, is best when it is closed and self-sufficient. The connection between Fried’s ideas about painting and Appleson’s work become clear when you compare it to the work of French genre painter Jean-Siméon Chardin (1699–1779). Fig. #25–26 Fried argues that Chardin was a kind of “purist” of the tradition of absorption: he depicted single figures rather than the groups that were more conventional, isolating the subject and giving the picture a point of focus. Chardin is famous for paintings that depict a person deeply engrossed in a game, a pastime or work, to the exclusion of everything else around him or her. (Importantly, Chardin was reworking the vanitas, finding the theme in common things and people rather than the rarest or most luxurious.) The fiction of paintings in the absorptive tradition, Fried argues, is that the figure in the painting is independent of a beholder. (In fact, Fried argues the eighteenth-century fiction was that a person could only be authentic when he or she was alone.) By extension, the painting becomes something independent of a viewer. It becomes an aesthetic object (an object of contemplation) rather than a social document or a ritual object. It, like the person depicted, occupies a space unconcerned with the passing of time.
The connections between Chardin’s work and Appleson’s run surprisingly — though accidentally — deep. There are thematic relationships, such as showing ordinary people at work. A good example with Chardin is The Scullery Maid (1738) which shows a young woman emptying a long-handled dustpan into a barrel. The fact that she is isolated and shown seriously — although not gratuit-ously — engaged with her work draws a comparison to Appleson’s series of the lady-butcher. Both artists depict people engaged with something deeply. Compare the concentration of one of Appleson’s boxers with Chardin’s well-known series of paintings, Boy Blowing Bubbles. In both, intense effort is being expended on a delicate but difficult activity. There are also striking visual relationships between each artist using simplified backgrounds and dramatic lighting, where the figure is drawn out in silhouette.
Chardin used the same conceit for his still life paintings. Fig. #1 There is here a remarkable similarity, in drama, stillness, and simplicity between Appleson’s work and a whole list of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century paintings, notably by Zurbarán, Caravaggio, and de La Tour. Fig. #27–29 These artists used similar pictorial devices to create a sense of place and timelessness, an aesthetics of sensibility, perhaps, that focuses attention on human agency. In another period study, Looking at the Overlooked, Norman Bryson reviews the aesthetic function of the blank background in still life painting, arguing that it was (of course) a fiction to separate human subjects out of a scene. Somebody had to arrange the objects, and they were for somebody as well. The isolation emphasises nearness, and Bryson argues this is one of still life’s key values. The backdrop (metaphorically) pushes the objects forward; there’s no spatial recession, no context. He calls it “anti-Albertian,” since it confounds the perspectival structure developed in Renaissance picture-making, and offers instead a proscenium, an aesthetic space. Because of this, still life’s mode of viewing is close examination — it signals that if you stop and look you will be rewarded with unexpected beauty.
Bryson cites the term rhopography (Greek: rhopos = trivial objects, graphy = depiction) to characterise still life’s focus on objects in the world normally forgotten or ignored. Seen from the perspective of the hierarchy of genres, still life painting is relegated to operate on the sidelines. But if it’s considered a self-determining alternative to the grand genre, it takes aim at that fiction, what Bryson dubs megalography, or the depiction of the great and the significant. Bryson notes that still life painting stakes its claim via a “rhetoric of realism,” a focus on the “thingness” of things, their solidness, their innate beauty, and their everyday-ness. This is paradoxical,
of course, and problematic, as pointing to something and saying it is ordinary turns it into megalography. For Bryson, it is precisely this issue that characterises Chardin’s work in contrast other still life painters. I’ll quote him at length:
The central issue is how to enter into the life of material reality as a full participant, rather than a voyeur, and how to defamiliarise the look of the everyday without precisely losing its qualities of the unexceptional and unassuming… Chardin’s solution to the problem of defamilairisation is to cultivate a studied informality of attention, which looks at nothing in particular… his own intervention is unassuming, and seems so ordinary as to relax rather than heighten attention. (Bryson, 1990, pp.90–1)
It’s not surprising that Chardin would be the painter among the many who worked in still lifes and petit genre painting in the eighteenth century who would appeal most to later generations, and remain profoundly compelling today. The “nearness” he created in his works still communicates, and this is quite extraordinary given the inaccessibility, beyond aesthetic or documentary value, of much historical painting.
We might see Appleson’s work, in Bryson’s terms, as achieving the “ordinary attention” which allows the viewer to look without becoming a voyeur. (This may in fact be impossible, but I’d like to consider that voyeurism is by degree, and not total, and that photography itself is so ubiquitous we might indeed see “through” it.) There is overlap here between the attention directed by the still life format and Fried’s notion of the individual aesthetic object originating in depictions of single-people genre scenes in the eighteenth century. In Appleson’s work, the “real” is signified by these pictorial cues: nearness, isolation, engagement, aestheticisation, timelessness, and the depiction of agency in his subjects. Appleson achieves this by capturing, in his photographs, duration rather than speed. His method, which I’ve argued is characterised by his use of the portable studio and directional natural light, can also be seen as an elaborate production of this capture of time: the cumbersome setting up of the screen, the waiting for, or rush to get the best light, even having to draw a person to the screen, asking them to perform a version of themselves. All of this creates the pause that exists in every one of Appleson’s photographs. And this self-sufficiency, created by the isolation of his subject matter, might account for their resistance to discourse.
As an ending, we might well ask of this group of photographs, what is the “loss” Appleson refers to in his title? We could point to photography itself and say that it’s always connected to death. Roland Barthes argued this in his book, Camera Lucida: every picture documents a moment that can never be again, and thus photography’s “ontology” is time passing. “All those young photographers who are at work in the world, determined upon the capture of actuality,” he writes, “do not know that they are agents of Death.” Barthes goes so far as to wonder whether photography itself is the only place in modern life where we collectively experience death, since religion and mythology have been so thoroughly gutted by material and historical — that is to say, modern — modes of thought. However, Barthes’ concern was reductive, taking photography generally and relating it to the unbearable loss he experienced after his mother’s death. Appleson’s Free Ground photographs — made on a trip home after being away, tantamount to the pursuit of a love-object — might well work this way. But the photographs he made in Mexico are different, so much less systematic, so much more responsive to the place and the people he met there.
A return to the vanitas might help: Bryson suggests that this type of painting was developed for a new merchant-class an-xious about their own materialism in a religious world still warning against greed. Vanitas paintings represented an intricate balance between utter admiration of beauty and revelling in wealth, and self-admonishment for investing so much in worldly objects. We have similar anxieties about materialism, but they’re not weighed against the possibility of going to Hell. For us materialism a symptom as well as an effect of overconsumption, a symbol of social inequality and poor ecology, but equally most of us depend upon material objects in their ever-expanding numbers for pleasure, profit and well being. Mexico could easily stand in for some of these issues, especially at a political angle. Appleson’s street vendors hawk cheap, mass-market goods, the girls he found dressed up in “traditional” Mexican garb were for the tourist trade, and the agricultural workers no doubt suffer from NAFTA’s shortcomings. Nonetheless, Appleson’s pictures take these things on in a particular way. In his effort to get us close to his subjects, over and over, the work becomes an exercise in shoring up a specialised, slow experience against the alternative, which would be to track the surfaces of things as they slip by, and represent the more common contemporary experiences of displacement, distraction, and forgetfulness, and the headlong rush towards the future. The world Appleson depicts is not quite benign, but neither is it the place reduced to sex and violence documented by the tabloids he collected during his trip to Mexico and included in an insert in this book. Fig. #30 The type of attention Appleson pays his subjects is generous and sustained. We might say it tries to break habits — of viewing and expectations — in the way we approach the particularities of our own lives.
Originally from New York, Alison Green is a London-based art historian, critic and curator. She teaches history and theory of art at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design.