Friday, March 27, 2009

The Metaphysical Implications of the de Kooning/Kiesler Portrait [1960]

I have a complex reaction to the above photograph, which is partly derived from my response to Irving Penn's work as a whole, and partly as a result of my meditations about the materials of artistic production. 

The history of photography is largely the record of technical advancement(s), punctuated by many false leads and dead-ends, leading presumably to progressively higher levels of clarity and potency of image. Of course this is only partly true: Innovation in photography has been driven as much, or more, by the lust for convenience and speed, as by quality of image. 

Platinum (or Platinum/Palladium) emulsions were first discovered and utilized well before 1850, but due to the relative cost of these rare metals versus silver, salt or albumen, they were largely abandoned around the turn of the 20th Century. Despite this, the unique qualities inherent in Platinum/Palladium images have long been known. Over the years, a few photographers have continued to explore the range of effects possible with PP printing. During the 1960's and 1970's, Penn, a technically exacting, highly successful commercial photographer, sought to make images with a greater tonal range, without losing any of the densities at the extreme ends (toe and shoulder) of the scale. 

Traditional PP prints tend to be "soft"--Palladium especially also tends towards a brown, "sepia" cast traditionally associated with "old" print-image making. Platinum, more expensive to use, makes a blacker image. This "soft" quality "reports" greater ("feathery") middle-range detail, producing images of great delicacy. Due to the extraordinarily slow "time" associated with PP emulsions, they are impractical for general photography, due to their long, high intensity light exposures. For this reason, they are routinely made as contact prints--sandwiching the naked negative flush against the dried emulsion sheet, transferring the image without the interposition of any expansion (or "enlargement") light projection lens. Emulsion sheets are typically hand-made just before exposure and development. On the other side of the ledger, PP prints are much less subject to the degradations of over exposure to visible spectrum light. 

Penn experimented during the 1950's and 1960's with variations on the PP emulsion formulas, trying additives of various kinds, to enhance and intensify the basic PP look. In addition, he used multiple exposures with layering of emulsions, requiring precise registration of negative overlays--painstaking, and often frustrating work. Only artists with the very highest objectives and standards undertake research of this kind, but Penn had a demanding vision, an obsession the drove him to perfect his materials to exacting levels of precision.  

His resulting success with PP prints permitted the creation of photograph images of greater detail, density and vividness than anyone had thought possible before: The proof was in the eye.

When I first saw Penn's Platinum/Palladium prints at exhibition, I knew immediately that their power lay not only in the choice of subject-matter, or in the innovative nature of his compositions, but in their materiality, the "stuff" itself. When I put this together with the methodology of the vision, I began to see photography in a new way--not simply as an accurate record of something the photographer-artist had discovered or seized from chance or opportunity, but a study of the chromatic/chemical properties of matter, the deeper implications of reflectivity and the deliberate control of the visible spectrum.

Physics and astronomy tell us that the entire universe is in essence simply an explosion: The Big Bang would be the creationist's short-hand if you believed it was "intelligent" in design; for the rest of us, its mere mystery is enough. Everything in the universe is burning, or has burned, or will burn up. Fuel and combustion and ash. Decay. Scientists now believe that life, as we know it, on earth, began at the peripheries of submerged volcanic vent-holes, where heat and the right chemical combinations led fortuitously to the first animate protein structures. Life originated from vulcanism: It's an astounding thought.

Einstein posited that everything in the universe, all matter, is nothing more than elaborations of light. Matter is "arrested" light, or "sluggish" light. Light is the touchstone, the "stuff" from which all substance, all structure, all interaction, all energy, is made and interpreted.  

Photography is the interaction between light and reflective surfaces, recorded/reported/perceived by light sensitive surfaces (including our eyes) as differing wave-lengths along a spectrum of oscillations. Monochromatic densities between absolute black (the absence of visible light) and saturated white (the upper edges of the visible spectrum in which intensity exceeds the scale of value). In metallic salt emulsion surfaces, including silver, or Platinum/Palladium, "development" is the degrees of oxidation (or "slow burn") which occurs between exposed and unexposed areas of the emulsion surface. The glass lens focuses the light image onto the emulsion and delineates the image according to the variable areas of light and dark, making a projected image, once the print is developed.  

In describing print values, photographers will sometimes refer to the contrast extremes of a monochromatic print as "chalk" and "soot". The "soot" is a very ironic descriptive, since the darker/est areas of any developed print are the most "burnt"--using the analogy of combustion/oxidation. Deepest black is, metaphorically, the ashen residue to total, or near total combustion, the "toe" of the log of reflectivity scale. 

I'm not attempting to give a lesson in photographic processes here, but this minimal gloss is necessary to follow the argument I'm making about Penn's image. This photograph is a double portrait, a studio shot, set up and framed precisely--there is nothing superfluous, nothing unnecessary or "accidental" about it. It's not "candid" or opportunistic or "decisive"--it's staged. But despite it deliberateness, its highly controlled aspect, it also frames several fleeting qualities. Typically, the subjects of portraits may be cooperative or impatient, comfortable or ill-at-ease. The dialectic between photographer and model may be a subtle one, subject to all kinds of distractions and influences; but this doesn't look like Kiesler is blinking--he's grown bored or fatigued and is dozing, or waiting for the next exposure to re-pose. De Kooning, on the other hand, is wide awake, and looking with interest into the camera.    

The two men in this portrait are both famous artists. Willem de Kooning (about aged 56 when this portrait was made) was already famous, having achieved an important place in the history of American Abstract Expressionism in the 1950's. Frederick Kiesler was an architect and furnishings designer with a strong underground reputation based partly on his involvement in the production of the important early Modernist work the Ballet mecanique in Vienna in 1924 (music by George Antheil, etc.); he'd been associated the Adolf Loos, the De Stijl group, etc. Kiesler would have been about 70 here.

In the portrait, Kiesler appears to have fallen asleep, or to be dozing. Some people doze compulsively, but in portraiture the subject may often seem to be sleeping, simply because at the moment of the shutter's click, he blinked. De Kooning, on the other hand, is wide awake. His clear-eyed regard is filled with attention, the steady gaze of an artist at the height of his powers. He's smoking--the classic candid "prop".

Both men are dressed rather formally, de Kooning specifically in a broad-cloth white cuff-linked shirt, with suspenders. The two figures lean towards each other, as if linked, though their association is not clear: They were not associated artistically or professionally. Their different ages are emphasized by Kiesler's apparent fatigue--he's clearly older, and closer--perhaps by at least 10 years--to dying. Photographic portraits freeze people at specific ages, capturing them in medias res, at one point in the arc of their existence. The subtle contrast between their ages is a key to the meaning of the picture.   

The cigarette is a potent symbol, perhaps the key to the whole image. The ash at the end of de Kooning's cigarette butt is quite long, perhaps an inch off of the burning point (tip). As anyone knows who has smoked, or watched people smoke, if you don't knock the protruding ash off the end of the cigarette, it will eventually "fall" off by itself. For me, the cigarette is a metaphor for several things:

1) The tension of the moment: Penn is posing the men in session, and as de Kooning leans against one arm, putting the lit cigarette in his right hand against the side of his head, the ash threatens to drop onto his dress shirt, ruining the moment. The length of the white ash creates drama--Penn undoubtedly saw this, and used it to advantage.

2) The symbolic aspect of combustion: Time is eating up the cigarette, just as it is consuming the two men, their clothing, the table, the fabric, the drop-cloth background, everything is fleeting, in the universal disintegration. 

3) The burning of the tobacco is a metaphor for the "burning" processes of the organic chemistry of the emulsions (negative and print). As the focused light strikes, the exact image of all this data is evoked through the transformation of the light-sensitive surface. The development of the silver negative, and then the burning (exposure and development) of the print emulsion, are all controlled burns

Penn's print value control is astonishingly strong: The soft melting white of the shirts, of the cigarette paper, contrast with the total black of Kiesler's sweater. Even in the digital reproduction seen here, which is in turn based upon a computer scanned reproduction from Penn's monograph published by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, reports incredible detail and intensity. Every whisker, every age-spot, every cross-hatch of weave in the materials, is visible. The imaginative quality of familiar textures becomes so sensual it actually seems to compete with reality!

The tension between the staged, made quality of the studio portrait, and the fleeting, ephemeral content (the cigarette particularly) mirrors the tight balance between disclosure, and concealment: De Kooning's shirt has its two buttons open; Kiesler's eyes are closed (he's obviously "elsewhere"). The portrait is, in a very real sense, an expression of the celebrity status of its subject(s); and the fact of their appearance in Penn's canon of work insures their continued survival as emblems of his penetrating exploration of human nature. 

When you think about the extraordinary lengths to which Penn went to perfect images such as this one, involving multiple registered layering of emulsion application, custom chemical mixtures arrived at through empirical trial and error, there is little doubt that his technique is no less inventive and creative than the greatest painters in history--e.g., Renaissance painters who experimented with different pigment combinations, etc. There was nothing "easy" about the production of this image. Each original print cost untold hours of lab work--unforgiving, delicate, fragile, exhausting. Technique carried to an absolute limit of the artist's vision, and dedication to the medium. 

This portrait of Penn's is among the most impressive of all studio photographs.  It is one of my all-time favorites.      

1 comment:

Kirby Olson said...

This one was fun to read. I only have one quibble. When you write, "Scientists believe..." or anything along those lines about the universe, you are making a hypothesis into a settled consensus, which I think is not so, since there are many competing theories. The idea that everything is made of light, too, is just a conjecture. As for the origins of life, too, all that is merely conjecture, and nothing along those lines has been proven or settled, at least to my amateurish knowledge.

I like to see PATTERNS in photographs, like winding staircases, cobblestone streets, or finding analogous comparisons between trains speeding one way, and other cylinders another way.

I think the pattern here is that the two men are so much alike in their shirts, and in the shape of their faces, that they are almost like twins, except one is much older. Presumably the older one would have been awake had he been younger? And so it shows a kind of shuffling off the mortal coil, from light into darkness, back toward a greater light, depending on belief.