Tamar Latzman: Three Tributes to the History of Photography / Ilanit Konopny

The following text is based on a conversation held at Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art in February 2017 with Tamar Latzman during her exhibition Mrs. Tadd’s Visit. We discussed the connection between her work, the concept of ‘gesture’ and the history of photography.

  1. The more frequently we interrupt someone in an action, the more gestures we obtain (Walter Benjamin)[1]

In 1839, the year when according to historians photography was officially born, a female scientist in Britain created blue-tinted photographs of seaweed. Her strong desire to use a camera for research purposes resulted in the creation of the first book illustrated with photographic images (to the extent that the history of photography is able to describe today). The book was a combination of academic text and artistic/research photography.[2]

Anna Atkins was a botanist who was exposed to the photography techniques of Henry Fox Talbot, himself a botanist and one of the founding fathers of the medium.  Following him, she created photograms and photographs by means of a microscope. The Victorian period in which she was active was typified by diverse attempts to organize the world and knowledge into categories and archives. Photography is but one of the tools created in the nineteenth century by means of which science endeavored to code and describe universal laws, and to document the physical world, from microscopic organisms to astronomical bodies.

Talbot’s photographs most likely inspired Atkins to create her extensive visual-research project, the first of its kind, which catalogued Britain’s seaweed varieties. She combined this work method with another chemical process, cyanotype, which was invented in 1842 by Sir John Herschel, a scientist and family acquaintance. She chose this technique for its low production costs and the high stability of the recorded images, but also due to the fact that this process produces a shade of deep-blue water that suited the subject of her research. The pages of text were also produced in identically colored cyanotype photograms. Atkins published the book independently in October 1843, and it comprised three sections and 389 photograph plates. About eight months later, Henry Fox Talbot published his renowned book, The Pencil of Nature. Until recently, however, history of photography books considered Talbot the creator of the first photography book.[3]

Like the act of photography, a gesture is the freezing of an image from a life sequence. Walter Benjamin refers to the pragmatic nature of a gesture through Brecht’s epic theatre. A gesture, he explains, is frame-like by its very nature: it has a definable beginning and a definable end. Its function is to interrupt, and it possesses a quality of spacing and slowing down. Like a quotation, a gesture is an act of interrupting, of taking out of context, of according new form and meaning.[4]

In Studies of a Wandering Jew Tamar Latzman dissects a Tradescantia plant, also known as “Wandering Jew,” and imprints it on photographic paper by means of blue-tinted photograms. Photograms, a photography technique dating back to the beginnings of photography, create a detailed description of objects through their direct contact with the light-sensitive coating on photographic paper, without use of a camera.

Latzman quotes Anna Atkins’s research on British seaweed and accords it new meaning. By substituting the original research subject with the Wandering Jew, which is taken from personal and local biography, she creates a kind of scientific perspective of Jewish and national identity. She creates interruptions, disrupting one context with a different one. By analyzing the plant’s elements, detached from land and place, she emphasizes the connection between its trait of spreading and striking deep roots even in harsh conditions, and its name, a metaphor for the historical figure of the exiled Jew condemned to eternal wandering. She does not create an action of imitation or reconstruction. She quotes Atkins’s practice in that the subject of research is a plant whose various varieties are examined by dissecting it and then magnifying sections of it by means of photograms, and in using blue tints. However, she does not reconstruct the cyanotype technique authentically, but uses twenty-first century digital painting techniques to add tints to the photograms. Whereas Atkins created a one-off photograph, Latzman creates one-off photograms and then scans them, thus enabling multiple digital prints. Familiarity with a seminal historical process charges the gesture with new interpretations and meanings. Latzman uses gesture in its Hebrew meaning as a “tribute” to Atkins, and in its meaning as a quotable “gesture”. She takes advantage of the tribute to Atkins, to the starting point of photography, seemingly explores the nature and roots of the Jew, and expresses a critical, layered position on construction of nationality, folktales, and canonical myths. By means of a pseudo-scientific practice she indicates the source and revives the discussion on ways of writing the history of photography and local culture.

Anna Atkins, Dictyota dichotoma, in the young state; and in fruit, 1849-1850

Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library (1849-11 – 1850-06). Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-4adb-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Tamar Latzman, Studies of a Wandering Jew: Line, 2013

 

  1. There are no images but only gestures (Giorgio Agamben)[5]

In 1872, a man in the US photographed a galloping horse, gave the world a research perspective on the motion of a horse’s body, and corrected human knowledge on an animal’s body in motion, and later on a human body in motion. He successfully “froze” unknown aspects of the body’s anatomic structure and motion, and found a way to set them back in motion – thus laying the foundations for motion pictures. A new world opened up for science, art, and entertainment.[6]

The man was Eadweard Muybridge, a photographer, adventurer, and inventor, who was initially known for his photographs of Yosemite Valley, which he published early in his career under the pseudonym “Helios”. He worked in the same regions as renowned landscape photographer Carleton Watkins. Only one photographer preceded them in documenting the wild, uninhabited landscapes – Charles Leander Weed. Their work resulted in Yosemite Valley being declared a nature reserve by the US Congress. Until recently it was customary for history of photography books to state that Muybridge reproduced Watkins’s photographs of the West as a tribute to a photographer he admired. However, recent studies indicate that the two met in Yosemite, exchanged photographs, and over the years some of Watkins’s photographs were mistakenly published under Muybridge’s name.[7]

As technological developments led to sharper and more accurate freezing of moments from reality, and obtained highly detailed information that is imperceptible to the human eye, photography became an essential aid for new disciplines such as geology, biology, chemistry, physics, and medicine. Photography served a growing need in the pursuit of knowledge, and in medicine it served as a major instrument in performing diagnoses, conducting research, documenting postmortems, and anatomy practice. In 1884, following the success of his experiments with photographing a horse in motion and his fame in the science world, Muybridge was invited to conduct research at the University of Pennsylvania with the aim of expanding his research on the body in motion. To this end a studio was set up for him in the university’s zoological garden. He photographed various animal species, e.g., camels, antelopes and elephants, and, encouraged by painter and scholar Thomas Eakins, he began photographing the human body in motion, which went on to become a monumental study.[8]

In order to isolate a motion sequence, Muybridge photographed each action thirty-six times: 12 side-views, 12 front-views, 12 back-views. They were presented in three rows on a single plate. However, few of the final plates contain all thirty-six photographs. Some of the photographs of the motion segments were removed. Moreover, photography theorist and Muybridge researcher Marta Braun reveals that in more than 40% of the plates, despite his claims, Muybridge did not arrange the photographs according to the sequence of motion, but according to the aesthetic sequence that makes sense to the human eye.[9]

Each of Muybridge’s individual images is a segment frozen from an action – an image of a gesture; expression through the body’s expressiveness. When Giorgio Agamben explains what a gesture is, he refers to Muybridge’s photographs. He believes that every image is animated by an antinomic polarity of reification and obliteration: on the one hand the image is the transformation of a gesture into a material object, thus blurring or destroying the gesture – the image is an item of memory or a symbol of what was and is no more, like a death mask; on the other hand, the image preserves the dynamic of an interrupted movement or a frozen sequence, like Muybridge’s photographs in his locomotion study or any sports photograph. In the former, the image exists in total isolation, and in the latter it refers to a whole beyond the individual image, a whole of which the image is only a part – to the event in its entirety. In other words, the images can be seen not only as static and eternal forms, but as fragments of a gesture or as stills of a lost film to which only they can restore its true meaning, as Muybridge endeavored to do with instruments such as a zoetrope, phenakistiscope, and magic lantern, which simulate the illusion of resumed motion. Agamben writes that it is as if a silent invocation calling for the liberation of the image into gesture arose from the entire history of art. He views images as a constellation in which phenomena arrange themselves as gestures and they transition from a moment of life into a moment of art, from raw material to expression, creation, and according meaning.[10]

In Mrs. Tadd’s Visit Tamar Latzman examines Muybridge’s iconic photographs from his locomotion study. She noticed that they were published without the names of the photographed figures, stating only reference numbers and descriptions of their physical actions: “Walking, Sprinkling Water from a Basin”, “Stopping and Lifting a Handkerchief”. She visited various archives, including the Eadweard Muybridge Collection at the University of Pennsylvania – which commissioned and sponsored his work – and studied history of photography books. Her research led her to the conclusion that Muybridge intentionally maintained the anonymity of the figures he photographed and did not include their names in the captions deliberately. His journals contain a partial list of the people he photographed, but without any cross-reference to their photographs.

Latzman traces Margaret Tadd, one of Muybridge’s models who was married to his colleague James Liberty Tadd, an art professor at the university. Using Braun’s research she matches Margaret Tadd’s name with her face. In a series of still photographs she isolates the image of Mrs. Tadd from two of Muybridge’s original plates in which she definitely appears. Latzman performs the same actions with other female models as well – isolating one image from additional plates of “Women in Motion” – thus restoring presence to them. She leaves Muybridge’s original caption, only adding Margaret’s name and a serial number, and transforms each photograph into a portrait of a woman. Thus she endows the women’s images with a specific identity, and at the same time transforms Mrs. Tadd into a prototypical model of all women, a generic name for a woman with children.

Latzman’s still photographs present a series of body gestures. According to its dictionary definition, gesture is a form of non-verbal communication or non-vocal communication in which visible bodily actions communicate particular messages, either in place of, or in conjunction with, speech. The body’s expressive gesture accords meaning to the action. Latzman isolates a segment from a sequence: semi-nude woman holding a child / woman raising her arms, revealing her pubic hair under the fabric covering her / nude woman with her back to the camera, almost contrapposto (as a kind of tribute to Eakins) / woman putting on and taking off corset – Muybridge’s photographs become theatrical, far removed from research or realistic description – their original meaning is blurred and the gesture replaces the image.

Gesture is Latzman’s raw material and the practice by means of which she critically responds to a reference from the past and to a canonical corpus of cultural knowledge. She produces a kind of artistic study based on academic research that poses questions on how the history of photography is written. She indicates the disparity between the historical importance of Muybridge’s images and the marginality of the figures they contain. While Muybridge attempts to expose every aspect of the body in action, Latzman isolates one facet and emphasizes it. Muybridge expropriates the women’s identity, Latzman gives them a name, and in the video accompanying the series she also gives them a voice. In the still photographs and the video, in which the artist is both the photographed subject (giving testimony as Mrs. Tadd) and the photographer, Latzman examines what is testimony and what is history, who tells it, and how. She engages with the patriarchal power relations between the male photographer and the photographed female subject, the male artist and the female model, by emphasizing the woman’s state as she performs seemingly innocent actions, by restoring the power of the portrait – the particular and the identified over the sequence of multiple possibilities. If Muybridge presented his photographs as an authentic study in service of science, Latzman focuses on disruptions in the study and doubts concerning the veracity of historical facts.

Eadweard Muybridge, Nude woman striking various poses, plate 531, 1884/1886

 

  1. Photography revealed its limits: it could give but a frozen section of the curve of a gesture or a displacement, because the gesture or the displacement fell outside the bounds of fixity (Philippe-Alain Michaud)[11]

In 1875 a white man in Germany published an album entitled “Ethnological Photographic Gallery of the Various Races of Men” at the request of the Society of Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory of Berlin. In an era of colonial expansion and imperialism, photography seemed an ideal tool for the comparative study of different ethnic groups and as a means for substantiating Origin of Man theories. In an era that increasingly espoused Darwin’s theory concerning “survival of the fittest”, photographs were a means of documenting and preserving races that faced extinction as a result of growing technological progress. Government survey expeditions or photographers who accompanied anthropologists and scientists created albums and repositories of ethnographic photographs.[12]

Carl W. Dammann collected over 600 photographs taken by other photographers, even though he had been asked to take them himself, and assembled them into an album. On each page he placed between five and eighteen photographs of varying sizes. Noted beside each photograph is the ethnic origin of the photographed subject, their sex, age, and name. Most of them are studio portraits purchased from unknown sources, including commercial photographs, photographs from colleagues engaged in the sciences, and from missionary societies.

The 1860s and 70s saw a surge in exhibitions showing the latest ethnographic studies accompanied by photographs of traditional costumes and tools attesting to profession and social standing. To create a comparative scientific study of the various races, the subjects were required to pose in the nude to enable observation of differences in skin color, hair texture, and body structure. The accepted style was to produce a front-view and side-view photograph of the subject (much like police identity photographs and Muybridge’s photographs). The portraits were generally photographed in an “exotic” style that matched Western expectations of tribal cultures, at times deviating from the factual truth of their customs.

A few months before he traveled to the land of the Hopi Indians in 1895, art historian Aby Warburg published an article on medieval art in Florence. He chose to attribute it to pagan mythology which is based on mute gesture art and relies on props and ornaments. After visiting the Hopi tribe in America’s west, Warburg draws a comparison between images of gestures in ancient cultures and those of people in Renaissance Florence.[13] The “Mnemosyne Atlas”, a research atlas that was his life’s work and which he did not live to see completed, contains thousands of photographs of artworks from the history of art, from its beginnings to his time. By means of this atlas Warburg attempted to explore recurrences and changes gestures undergo in the history of Western culture, how a gesture presented in an image from antiquity is expressed in an image from the modern era.

In recent years Tamar Latzman has been collecting objects and ethnographic photography-style photographs that she finds on the internet, in second-hand shops, and in public archives. Like Carl Dammann, she uses photographs taken by others, according no importance or hierarchy to their source. She is creating her own ethnographic archive and attempting to explore the position of the photographer who has “delimited” the gesture and of the photographed person whose action has been reduced to a gesture.

In a new body of work, which she will be showing at the Israeli Center for Digital Art in Holon, Latzman traces an ethnographic expedition that studied the life of Jews in the Pale of Settlement in Czarist Russia. Latzman collected archival materials and findings in a journey of her own in the footsteps of the original expedition. She interweaves her findings with those of the historical expedition, and intermingles fact and fiction. As in her previous works, Latzman continues the practice of isolating a gesture to express challenge, opposition, acknowledgement, response to processes in local-national history and in the history of photography. She does this by linking images of gestures from the nineteenth century with contemporary ones.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (1873-1874). D’Urban, Natal Zulu (U’tambosa) Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/fd9cb550-2288-0132-bcc0-58d385a7bbd0

 

Stereograph, item from Tamar Latzman’s collection

[1]   Benjamin, W. (1973). Understanding Brecht. London: NLB, p. 3.

[2]   Zanot, F. (2010). Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. In W. Guadagnini, (Ed.), Photography, The Origins 1839-1890 (pp. 52-57). Milano: Skira Editore S.p.A.

[3]   Ibid., p. 52. Today we know of seventeen copies in England, Scotland, the US, and Israel. There are differences between them in format and number of pages, indicating that they were not produced as a sequential series.

[4]   Benjamin, pp. 3, 19-20.

[5]   Agamben, G. (2000). Means Without End. London: University of Minneapolis, p. 54.

[6]   Solnit, R. (2003). River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. US: Penguin Group, p. 3.

[7]   Solnit, p. 45; Gordon, S. (2015). Indecent Exposures: Eadweard Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion Nudes. New Haven and London: Yale University, p. 16; see also, Solnit, R. (2010). Eadweard Muybridge: Feet off the Ground, The Guardian. Retrieved 8.2.2018: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/sep/04/eadweard-muybridge-exhibition-rebecca-solnit

[8]   Gordon, pp. 30, 35.

[9]   Warner, M. (2002). Photography: A Cultural History. London: Laurence King, p. 215. Mary Warner Marien notes that this was preceded by another deception by Muybridge when he documented the Modoc War. He photographed a Native American scout who worked for the American army and presented him as a Modoc warrior even though he was not a member of this tribe (ibid., p. 130).

[10] Agamben, pp. 54-55, 80.

[11] Michaud, P.A. (2007). Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion. New-York: Zone Books, p. 45.

[12] Falconer, J., & Hide, L. (2009). Points of View: Capturing the 19th Century in Photographs. London: British Library.

[13] Michaud, pp. 262-271.