Photography has traditionally been invested with the burden of such implicit responsibilities as "truth" and "accuracy" since its inception. While examples of such misappropriation are legion at the same time even the most hard-core postmodernists are willing to settle outstanding insurance claims through photographic evidence if it helps their case. This is important to consider whenever debates about truth and photography get sticky and academic. The fact of the matter is that camera-based imagery still carries an authority that is imbedded in our rational/relativist culture and that many contemporary artists draw upon that condition as a basis for their ideas.
At the same time there have always been artists who have employed the technical methods of photography with more subjective, personal goals in mind. From Charles Negre through Bas Jan Ader and Luis Gonzalez-Palma, individuals have elegantly wrestled with the fine line between clarity and repeatability and the individually crafted object to further expand the possibilities of the medium.
Until recently these two threads were thought to be independent of one another. Conceptual practice rejected the idea of the finely-crafted object and admirers of the fine print saw cerebrally-based works as cold and remote. The camps were split and had little to do with one another. But, as with so many things in today´s cultural mix, these walls have been broken by a generation of younger artists who find such debates to be old, musty and without meaning. Artificial barriers from another age.
Lajos Geenen is one such artist. It is impossible to separate his ideas from his sense of craft. He uses the camera and the materials of traditional photography in a respectful and compelling fashion. His images are sharp, clear and have an implied authority that comes from a deep appreciation of photographic method. At the same time, all his work is based on an active, ongoing questioning of the value of believing what is in front of the camera and, by implication, your eyes.
Look at any number of his works with this in mind. It is easy to appreciate them for their deep, rich renditions of texture, tone, form and space. Yet the mental gyrations at play are so intrinsic to the work that they could be presented as sketches, diagrams or photocopies. Of course they are not. Lajos wouldn´t permit it and there´s the rub. He wants it both ways, by creating works that are concept-based and object-oriented, a conflation that is, to my mind, totally appropriate at this time and place.
Jim Dow is teaching photography and history of photography at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Tufts University and Harvard. Currently represented by Janet Borden, Inc. in New York and the Gallery for Contemporary Photography, Santa Monica, CA, U.S.A.
The photography of Dutch artist Lajos Geenen invites suspicion. Despite their perfect grasp on color, beauty and light, the photographically realistic images comprising Geenen's The Birth of… and Gravity series are too perfectly composed to be taken at face value. Physical contradictions in the prints prove a level of forethought and stagecraft that belie a chanced-upon perspective. Speaking much like a painter, the artist will tell you that photographic moments are not caught, they are decided. The stumbled-upon quality of Geenen's work is the consummate layer of his precisely executed and thoroughly considered compositions.
Each image in The Birth of… series implies possible conceptions of the word that comes next in the title—confidence, patience, reincarnation, opportunity. And with each instantiation of the idea comes the option to accept the photographic reality or to deconstruct it. The Birth of Inertia I readily supposes a girl on a bicycle, the left photo in the diptych pitting her against the wind, the right hand photo gently sweeping her along. A closer examination shows that the strong wind that blows her hair forward or back appears to have no affect on the surrounding grass or trees. In fact, there is no motion elsewhere at all. The bike is at a standstill, inert. The manual enhancement of the subject’s hair (a wig), foils the inertia elsewhere and hints at subtext.
Again, in The Birth of Inertia II, the woman ascends and descends a set of stairs alongside a bridge, her long hair suggesting a farcical gust. The setting itself is a contradiction, until the subtly of a vertical image flip from one to the next reveals itself. The vertical flip and the contradiction of motion are visual links—allegories that Geenen surreptitiously layers on the work. The act of ascension, against the wind, is to question reality as it is handed to us; suggestion, on the other hand, is the wind at your back. The image wants to sweep you away; your intellect fights the desire.
The Birth of Reincarnation perfectly pulls together Geenen's subtlety and mastery of purposeful construction. A pair of storks soar over a graveyard, archetypes of death and birth combining in spectral fashion. One stork’s wing stroke is the inverse of the other; one pushes, the other pulls. The mirror flip is too perfect to not raise suspicion. Yet Geenen’s touch of artifice always skirts interference, and by his hand the image and its meanings come into full relief.
Horizon lines have figured heavily in Dutch and Flemish landscape paintings, beginning a tradition of the sea as a favorite topic.
In The Birth of Denial, a gray-blue rock bed sprawls beneath an elevated road, one easily mistaken for an aqueduct incapable of quenching the thirst of its surroundings. The second image in this diptych continues the hypnotic hue, tracing it along a vague footpath through the dry riverbed. The Birth of Patience, taken near Marrakech, Morocco, also begets a slight feeling of thirst, as a man hovers his net over a shallow pool of water bounded by dry, cracked red sand. He catches only his own reflection, and yet the patience in the title refers less to his futile efforts than a suggested wait for the remaining water to evaporate.
Whether thought prefigures language in the mind of human beings is a riddle unsolvable. And yet, in the mind of the artist, thought discloses a reality to come, adumbrating the position of unknowing subjects, the relationship of clouds, the pattern of bricks paving a street. For Gravity #1 and Gravity #2, Geenen kept his camera poised in his windowsill for months, influencing the reality below to meet his vision of it. Both images refer to the same construction site and yet use gravity in uniquely different ways, catching our eye with the exchange of fluorescent objects and leading us down a ladder into a subterranean world or guiding us vertically along a neat row of brickwork that serve to replenish that very same site. Gravity #2 becomes a metaphor for the surface of a photograph, a surface that eventually covers up and restores what is at work beneath.
Geenen’s Gravity series fulfills its prophecy, taking us to the depths of each scene. In Gravity #3 and #5, people stand in the lowest points of a marsh, footing that would not appear to sink were people not standing there. In #3, a woman paints the landscape from its nadir. In #5, a man in a wheelchair in the midst of the marsh is at an impasse, a deep set of tracks behind him. He looks over his shoulder, having been pushed in this position and left to ponder his next move. A companion in a red dress disappears stage left, seemingly unconcerned.
Perhaps Geenen’s most earth-shattering image takes earth shattering quite literally, capturing a meteor before impact. Gravity #4 reveals a rooftop view of an Amsterdam skyline. The image is slightly shaken to suggest the moment before impact. The meteor itself is actually the rising moon, taken with a long exposure. The moon creates a streak in the sky that seems effortlessly and speedily headed to earth. The brilliant platinum light is mirrored in interiors espied through windows. From this vantage point we glimpse porches, curtains, and a bookcase—a barely intimate peek into lives soon to be shaken by the incoming mass. The implied gravitas, thereby, is doubly intended.
Geenen is not playing tricks as much as he is bestowing a reason to exist on the subjects of his photographs. Supplying us with the means of interpretation, his visual clues are layered into works that give us pause as much for their subtle complications as their immediate beauty. Meteor or no meteor, photos like Gravity #4 captivate us with their own breathlessness. Whether taken from his windowsill or elsewhere in the world, Geenen makes us long to be there, in the scenes of his photographs, looking for more clues.
D’lynne Plummer is a freelance writer, essayist and arts journalist based in Boston, Massachusetts.