Discuss a photograph that takes an existing work of art as its starting point. Write a 500-word reflection on your chosen piece in your learning log.
Although in her interview with Sheila Lawson McMurdo references several works of art which have influenced her series, I have chosen Eli Lotar’s “L’Abattoir ” from the series “Aux abattoirs de la Villette” (1929). I see the photograph as a work of art because that is how, through its construction and use of light, it was seen at the time it was first exhibited.
The work by McMurdo which I am analysing is Helen, Backstage, Merlin Theatre (The Glance) 1996.
It seems a little incongruous to compare a manipulated digital image of a young girl backstage in a theatre in 1996 , with an analogue image of hooves of slaughtered cows leaning against a wall in La Villette, Paris in 1929. Yet, there are more fundamental similarities than I had imagined possible. Wendy McMurdo herself states “Like traditional portraiture the work includes a figure, but it is most definitely not about the figure. That is, the work concerns itself above all with the space which surrounds its supposed subject.” (Interview cited below) . The exploration below will show how Lotar’s work is not about the butchery, it is about ‘le terrain vague’ in which it is situated.
“L’Abattoir” was seen as part of a series of images which marked, in inter-war France, the moving away from single image documentary practice, to displaying projects in series in which the creative process was important. Combined with this, the emergence of the matter-of-factness / the new objectivity / the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, encouraged viewers to turn towards a practical engagement with the world rejecting the romantic idealism of the art nouveau movement, for example. McMurdo also works in series and, not only is her work designed to reference the elaborate composition production of photographs of the 1850s, but it also investigates the impact of digital culture on identity formation. The author is interrogating a new medium and how people interact with it to project themselves in their environment. This is supported by Emilie Lesage in her MA thesis (2009) on Lotar’s L’Abattoir. Lesage maintains that photography as art is seen less as a take on reality and more as a construction, worked over various stages. It was interesting that at the same time as Lotar and his ‘teacher’ Germaine Krull were working on their respective projects, Lazlo Maholy-Magy was experimenting with light in his photography practice at the Bauhaus: his interest was more with the techniques than with the art and came to be known as ‘la nouvelle vision’ – much as digital imaging is being experimented with today & exemplified by McMurdo.
Krull & Lotar looked closely at social developments and, in particular at ‘le terrain vague’ that marginalised, indeterminate space like that inhabited by L’abattoir . It is situated in La Villette which, in the 1920s, was at the point where the urban met the suburban. Following Haussmann’s social/urban cleansing programme of the 19th Century, the suburbanisation represented a hybrid between nature and culture, and this is captured in Lotar’s work: a vague geographic and social context. McMurdo’s people too are placed in an indeterminate space and relative time to one another which create anxieties in the viewer who does not know how to interpret the knitted dimensions. We are not anxious about the unknown but about the indeterminate area which is the product of melding the known and the new. McMurdo emphasises that the work is not about the figure/portrait but it concerns that space which surrounds its supposed subject.
Spotlighting is vital in the creation of McMurdo’s work. In Lotar’s , the art is created by the use of atmospheric natural light. From 1924, Lotar used an Ermanox camera which was small format, light & easily manoeuvred, but most importantly, it could take very fast photographs in natural light.
Both photographers refer to their work as ‘uncanny’ Lotar’s photos convey an uncanny lineal place of slaughter seen from the outside; McMurdo claims that her work has an uncanny sense of animation – one deals with death & the other with contrived life.
The Double is arguably the most interesting aspect in this comparison of the two works of art. In Lotar’s work, there are two parallel rows of severed limbs, although only one is immediately perceived. The butcher has his name twice on the wall – once in formal typology, another time scratched on the spotted wall, almost invisible. The uncanny animal remains, at the entrance to a street, do not mirror the relationship between the once animate and inanimate – the interest is in the historical developments and disruptions. The placement of the remains and the name of the butcher on the same wall is disturbing & the natural light plays its part in conveying that unease.
McMurdo uses the same subject twice in her contrived images, her sleight of hand appears invisible, its effect is disturbing & the spotlighting enhances that unease. What is uncanny in both is the viewer’s awareness of the contrived times and spaces.
Both works are created in an ambiance in which film and paintings are indexed: for Lotar, working with film maker Joris Ivens and painter Andre Masson, both of whom referenced the abattoirs, must have influenced his work. The dynamic composition, the angles of the streets and the direction of the light invite the viewer to imagine a scene evolving in the space. McMurdo’s “Doppelgangers”, set in theatrical surroundings, has very strong filmic qualities – the viewer senses a dynamic interaction between the subject and its doubtle in the scene.
Both works examine that ambiguous place held by man as an individual. The idea of ‘the double’, present in both works, creates an unease sustained by an indeterminate sense of time and place in both works. That ‘terrain vague’ creates a sustained apprehension in the viewer of both works, whether expressed in digital or analogue forms. Both have strong connections with film making and painting. In both images the viewer is anxiously standing on shifting sands of knowing what is going on.
Britain,D.(ed.) (2000) Creative Camera:Thirty years of writing (The Critical Image), Manchester:MUP Ch 41, pp251 – 56)