What is Magical Realism?
In trying to answer this question, I’ll start by mentioning the person who actually put …
In trying to answer this question, I’ll start by mentioning the person who actually put …
I have been fascinated by the many elements of Loretta Lux‘s fine art photography over the last couple …
After ending Fernwehallein I decided to take a pause. This project marked the first five years of the lonely houses. There is no question these years were a crazy wild ride for me. From the intuitive, free flowing days of walking around with a mobile phone capturing houses in my family home in Madeira, to having a solo show in Lisbon, and re-opening my online shop for art prints. I needed a pause to introspect about all this, to make sure that whatever I do next is meaningful to me.
While I am a perfectionist, I am also liberal about perfectionism. The struggle between these two opposing forces has been inside me since I remember. On the one hand, there is the free flowing intuitive who values novelty and wants to explore the unknown in whatever way possible. On the other, the craftsman, the scientist, the one who does not care at all how long it takes to make things perfect, and for who perfection is a constantly moving target. It really seems to me that I have reached a stage now where finally these two parts of me can begin to coexist.
So, I’m now back for more — taking new steps, slowly. The way it starts for me is on my new studio at home. From this place I can now control the entire process: from conception, the sketches on the design table, taking the photos, developing the negatives, scanning and editing. I own it all (well, almost all). I can finally control every step of the path from an idea to the final step before the art print.
This is my current meditation. I am scanning old and new film negatives. I repeat the process over and over, seeking the right adjustments that will allow my Epson 750 scanner to give me the best results I can get at home. This involves a lot of steps, from handling the negs, to preparing the scanner, scanning, and then… the adjustments.
The biggest challenges for me right now are: (1) getting the right colours. I don’t think the native converters do it right, they take me close but not quite to the final thing; (2) getting the sharpest scan (I think I am buying one of the betterscanning trays); and (3) cleaning dust and scratches – this is where I am spending some good time. I began my editing learning path with digital images that were pretty much grainless. Film scans vary a lot in this respect and editing images that have natural grain can be quite a challenge.
It is funny to remember how I resisted the grain for a while — when I started with analog photography — but I have changed my mind. It is not that I go for the grainy look, but now I can see how the right grain can change our perception of a volume — so, so much. I now resist the plastic look of full frame and medium format digital images, because while they can be beautiful to look at, they lack some kind of community scaffolding I see in the film negative with the right, small, grain.
It is also this incredible thing of what happens to the grain when printed as a C-type print, in the right size. Some beautiful alchemy takes place. I am learning about it and loving it.
In parallel, I decided to re-open my online shop where you will find art prints for sale. These have the same quality as my original pieces, namely certified C-type prints on Fuji Matt (or in some cases FujiFlex) . They are just re-edits, cropped smaller versions in much larger limited editions. For now, each piece will have 150 original prints made. Once sold out they will never be printed again.
Many people have been enquiring about more affordable versions of my works. I have been working on a number of ideas and the new Aleke series is just one of them. The goal is to release a new print every six weeks. If you have any enquiries feel free to get in touch on instagram DM, or use the contact form available from the menu.
Next post? Deeper into the editing of film scans.
In trying to answer this question, I’ll start by mentioning the person who actually put those two words together: magical + realism. It was a German Philosopher, Franz Roh, who worked mostly as a writer and critic.
In the 1850s a strong wave of Realism took over the art scene, as a response to the Romantics. Artistic expression became more focused was on portraying events of every day life and what we can all see, rather than on portraying individual emotions, spirituality, imagination, and mystery.
After a while, the first art movement of the 20th century emerged, Expressionism. Maybe a as a response to a little too much reality. Expressionists were not concerned with the universally accepted views of what is real for all that we can see or hear. Rather, they brought the subjective, the intuitive and the deeply emotional sides of perception back to the forefront of what art speaks about. An art piece considered as being a huge influence to the birth of Expressionism is the very famous Scream by Edward Much, which has been recently in the news again.
I see it this way: Realism and Expressionism kind of got married and had two children. One is Magical Realism and the other is Surrealism. Together with auntie Romanticism and other art movements, it seems this family gets a good coverage for the various elements of existence. For existence to me goes way beyond the ‘correct’ perception of what is ‘real’.
It was not until the XX century had settled in, the world had seen a World War, and was entering another that Magical Realism really became an entity, and this happened in the literary genre.
Magical realism is set in the ordinary experience of being alive, but it brings magical elements into it. This happens in a way that does not invalidate the real, but augments it with a sense of ‘things that could be possible’. This is often achieved by not spelling the magical elements and their source entirely.
A classical example of this are the many spiral time warps in Gabriel García Márquez ‘A hundred years of solitude’. But there are many other examples of course. A personal favourite of mine comes from Gioconda Belli’s ‘The inhabited woman’ where the soul of a 16th century native central american woman — who was buried under an orange tree — enters the soul of another woman in the 1970s through the tree’s fruit. More recent films like the Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain, and the music by Bjork are examples of Magical Realism.
Magical Realism is not escapist. It does not try to replace reality with the world of dreams. It does not want to depart from reality and set the dynamics of living somewhere else. One key difference between Magical Realism and his sister Surrealism is precisely this. Surrealism is concerned with the dynamics of the world set in the realm of dreams, what can be imagined, that which could be possible in an entirely different world. The Artwork below ‘Imaginary Traveler’ by Christian Schloe is an example of what I would not class as Magical Realism, but instead as Surrealism.
I resonate with all these art movements, with all these mindsets. I love the realism in the work of Vivian Maier, and I am equally nourished by Surrealism in Frida Kalho and Rene Magritte. But in what I produce, and how I live, I feel more at home when I am closer to the works of Murakami and García Márquez.
But I need more.
Can living around Magical Realism, as a producer and/or consumer make a change in how I live? or how I perceive? or relate to others?
If this speaks to you, stay tuned for subsequent posts and other news by subscribing to my Newsletter
Featured Image: The Crew by Jared French, 1951.
“11 Questions you’re too embarrassed to ask about Magical Realism”
“What is Magical Realism, Really?”
I have been fascinated by the many elements of Loretta Lux‘s fine art photography over the last couple of years, since I was introduced to her work.
Loretta Lux was born in Dresden, Germany, in 1969. In 1989 she left East Germany for Munich, months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. in 1996 she graduated from the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Munich. Lux is a trained painter. She said in an interview that was not very comfortable with the ‘mess caused by paints, solvents, brushes and so on’ and that this was one of the reasons she turned to photography around 1999. Soon after she transitioned to the kind of work that would become her artistic signature: Photos of children, disturbingly gazing into nowhere, with empty eyes.
In her photos, Lux speaks about a very peculiar vision of childhood. And clearly she is not documenting anything about the children themselves. Instead, they become actors that embody something Lux is after, and which seems difficult to grasp precisely, yet it is not hard to understand on an intuitive level.
I never allow them to wear their own clothes. My work isn’t about these children. You can recongnise them, but they are alienates from their real appearance.
This clearly does not seem to be the kind of work that flows out of espontaneity. It feels very controlled, planned, and executed to a pre-conceived vision to exact detail. This is something I have personally been interested in for a long time, the interplay between art as free expression of the soul, and art as a manifestation of controlled thought. The boundaries do not need to be sharp, but anyway. Let us continue speaking about Lux.
Because my style is so different from other work, people regard it as a kind of brand, while I’d rather focus on developing the psychological elements in each image
Lux alters the images in a way that, to my perception, leaves nothing superfluous; only what is relevant to the concept of the picture is there. She may distort human proportions, and set her children against backgrounds she photographed or painted before.
Nobody really knows much about Lux’s technique. And several people have tried to ‘reverse engineer’ the path to her portraits. Nobody has been really able to do it so far. She has her brand secrets and I think it is wonderful that she does. I believe that the raw photos contain most of it already and that there is a lot of careful digital painting on top of it. I know from my own experience with the lonely houses that it is extremely hard to change shadows that are already present in the source image for example, so I try to capture my houses lit in a way that is as close as possible to what I want them to look like in the final piece.
There is still a degree of work that Lux does on removing shadows, on making the skin look almost translucent, and on the eyes, her digital manipulation pipeline is exquisite. Lux works from digital images, and then turns to large negative, which is then printed on Ilfochrome, at least to her latest pieces. Ilfochrome paper is not being produced anymore. For transferring a digital piece onto a negative you can still go to Bayeux in the UK, see here. I think the closest paper and printing technique to what Lux used is Fujiflex, which I have used in some of my own pieces.
One of the most complete accounts of the mechanisms of creativity I have studied was presented by Margaret Boden in her book, The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms (Boden, 1990). Her account starts by discarding ideas about possible romantic or divine origins of this aspect of human intelligence and focusing on ideas from history of science, Artificial Intelligence and Psychology.
First of all, Boden’s Maps of the Mind are based on the notion that internal representations, and their transformations, are at the core of the creative act. Boden refers to the mind as a conceptual space that resembles an unexplored geographical landscape – which is known by the mechanisms of intelligence, in a way that is analogous to the way it would be known by a cartographer. In the unexplored landscapes of the mind, however, the geography can change and be recreated over and over again. It will even come into existence as the “cartographer” moves. Beyond taking the representational corner as her starting point, Boden grounds her account using generative systems, which are at the core of the theory of computation, as the means for explaining the exploratory dynamics occurring in her Maps of the Mind.
Generative Systems consist of a set of ‘generative Elements’ or tokens, which can be conceived as abstract symbols in general, and another set of ‘generative principles’ that will determine how the former can be combined in order to construct meaningful units. Familiar examples of generative systems are Language (words and grammar rules), Logic (Boolean variables, and logical connectors) and Chess (pieces and valid moves) among many others. According to Boden, what is happening in our minds as we represent, is the exploration, creation, stretching and even abuse of generative systems. Furthermore, Boden adds that these mechanisms are goal-oriented or, similarly, activated by the individual’s pursuit of a particular objective or purpose, be it the resolution of a problem, the understanding of a phenomenon or simply the pure pleasure of play and exploration.
To illustrate Boden’s Maps of the Mind idea, she gives a phenomenological description of how August F. Kekule ́ discovered the chemical structure of Benzene (Koestler, 1964).
August Friedrich Kekule ́was one of the most prominent chemists of the late nineteenth century. Working in the orthodoxy that characterised this part of history of Chemistry and being one of its strong believers, Kekule ́ worked following strict rules. At that time, the organic chemist’s job was basically to “discover” by experimentation the components and proportions of these present in the different organic compounds whose existence was assumed. The final product was the detailed description of a carbon-based string with which the organic compound could be successfully produced in the laboratory. For a description to be accepted as valid it had to conform to two rules: First, it had to be coherent with the accepted laws of organic chemistry of the time. Second, it had to fit the behaviour of the given compound in laboratory conditions.
The procedure was successful for describing many aliphatic organic compounds such as ethyl alcohol, but not for other compounds like benzene. The search for the description of benzene was giving Kekule ́ — and other scientists of the time — a very hard time, as several attempts were suggesting more and more that finding a description for benzene was impossible.
The problem was related to the valence of the carbon atom. It was known at the time that atoms had limited and fixed capacities for linking with other atoms. Around 1858 Kekule ́ developed a theory which postulated that organic compounds were formed by open strings of carbon atoms. He also had taken carbon to have a valence of four and hydrogen a valence of one. This meant that in a open string of carbon atoms, the ones in both ends of the string would use one of their valences to link to the inside of the string and the ones in the middle would use two valences (one for each side). Following this, atoms in the ends of the string would have three free valences to connect to other atoms and those inside the string would have two. Back to the Benzene description problem we know that experimental evidence had already shown that that the Benzene molecule was made of six atoms of carbon and six atoms of hydrogen. Using the laws stated by Kekule ́ for the formation of organic compounds, the Benzene molecule, having six carbon atoms would need fourteen hydrogen atoms and not six. Double or triple bonding was out of the question because experimental evidence had shown them to be impossible to keep in a stable manner. The compound did not capture monovalent atoms either… Who or what was wrong? Kekule ́’s measurements used to obtain the experimental evidence? or the foundational theory of organic chemistry? For several months Kekule ́ worked looking for an intelligible molecular structure to describe Benzene without success. With all probability he explored many of the possibilities that the laws for chemistry of that time allowed.
Up to this point, the story does not go beyond Kekule ́ exploring the combinatoric space formed by the chemical-element representations together with the rules that could be used to combine them. This description could be called “The late XIX century organic chemistry Generative System”. What about Boden’s Maps of the mind?. Boden’s supports the relevance of her ideas by quoting the description of an experience Kekule ́ had which helped him to solve the Benzene problem. He described it the following way,
I turned my chair to the fire (after having worked on the problem for some time) and dozed. Again the atoms were gambolling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly to the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by repeated vision of this kind, could not distinguish larger structures, of manifold conformation; long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together; all twining and twisting in snakelike motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lighting I awoke…
Originally quoted in Findlay, A hundred years of Chemistry, p.39.
In terms of the initial formulation of the problem, what Kekule ́ realised was basically that the behaviour of the links between the carbon and hydrogen atoms could be transformed from the open curve with fourteen free valences into a closed one that left twelve open links. Apart from challenging the organic chemistry community of the time (with the proposal of a closed carbon ring) Kekule ́ also had to redefine some of the rules for the connections between atoms, perhaps, encouraged by the possibility of closed rings in existing Organic Chemistry. This was because he could not come up with a characterisation that would be in accord with the empirical evidence. The benzene molecule only attached six hydrogen atoms, so Kekule ́ proposed a dynamic structure which switches chemical links.
In terms of Boden’s Maps of the Mind, what Kekule ́ experienced was an active process of conceptual construction – which took him to where he wanted to go: the correct formulation of the benzene molecule. In this case, the topological concepts about open and closed curves mentioned above had to be present in Kekule ́’s mind, at a same level of description as the organic chemistry rules he knew. This allowed the transfer of the notion of closed topology into the system of rules for writing organic chemistry he knew.
In more everyday terms, we are actively exploring and constructing maps of the mind when we solve problems by analogy, or express emotions non-trivially using clever metaphors.
I think that for Ren Hang, being Chinese seems to only have managed to amplify his sense of freedom (some may call it mischief). But on a closer examination of his words, actually that is maybe an overstatement.
He has said in interviews that China has little influence on his work, and emphasizes repeatedly that his work is not a critique of Chinese politics. Ren limits himself to avoid the police when he is shooting because they are really after him. He often has to flee the set with all his equipment.
What I absolutely love about Ren’s work is that every single post speaks in one way or another about nature, but seen from a very unique, very sexual, and lush perspective. His work is to me a quiet, but exuberant celebration of organic patterns — as well as of the interactions between them — having the human element always as a key player.
There is some of his work I do not like so much, like the photos with dead fish and stuff like that. It shocks me but not they way I like being shocked. However, there are so many amazingly beautiful images in his body of work.
He has said somewhere that when he goes out shooting he does not know what he is looking for, that often he finds out after, when seeing the photos. I loved finding out about this, because for me it is so often that way too with my own work.
All in all, Ren is someone I will be keeping an eye on for the foreseeable future.
Not long ago somebody from Japan contacted me via my facebook page to tell me the photos I post on instagram made her think of a Japanese photographer I had never heard about until then. His name was Shoji Ueda. I went immediately to search for him, without knowing what a interesting time I was about to have while browsing the results.
Shoji Ueda was born in 1913 in Tottori (Japan), and died in 2000. I am sure I am not too wrong in saying that he may well be one of the very first minimal surrealist photographers that ever existed. From reading about his life it seems he had a happy one, with his wife and three children, all of whom appear often in his photos.
My personal journey of discovering Ueda’s work first focused in something I deeply relate to: the use of vast negative, natural spaces. Ueda found the ideal backdrop for this photos in the sand dunes that are close to his native town. In my perception, the negative space in Ueda’s photos acts as an amplifier to the message or emotion encoded in the main subject. What the subject is saying or depicting, seems to echo to me as the observer in increasingly amplified ripples as I look, each making me often realise something different about ‘the subject’.
Ueda’s photos often portray people who rarely look at the observer directly. Sometimes a photo will depict a single individual, who, in interaction with the space around them, makes me think about the relativity of events on a ‘large’ and ‘small’ scale. A game in which a tiny human character makes an umbrella as important as a huge passing cloud.
Other times Ueda depicts groups of people in ways that I find deeply fascinating. The connection between each individual and the surrounding space is explicit. Body language is never, ever flat. Quite the contrary, it makes you wonder about the character. Then as a group, there are clear connections in a game of joint disjointness that I can see how brings many people – and me as well – to think about surrealism.
During the more mature stages of his career, Ueda worked with medium format film Pentax 645 camera, and developed his photos almost always in black and white. I am yet to learn more about Ueda’s conceptual and emotional drives, but without a doubt he became an instant influence for the work I am currently producing.