Monday, April 23, 2007

Almost Home: The Collective Oculi

A girl runs through a cemetery. A photographer is standing nearby, looking at picnickers and families, pondering the use to which so many people are putting this space, this necropolis, which they have converted into a park for their weekend amusements. They clear a space for themselves in the house of death, and in the midst of their mortality they enshrine the ghosting pleasures of the flesh. A bit of warm sun on one’s skin, banished quickly by the cold snap of the breeze coming from the sea. The girl intones as she passes, “almost home, almost home.”

©Nick Cubbin/Oculi

What is life but a suspended transit between two points, distant and yet curiously familiar, that we neither know nor remember, but anticipate with dread and curiosity. Two moments that withhold the meaning of our journey from us until we stop running and submit to the inevitable, disappear from the trail, leaving perhaps a few crumbs behind to point the way. That unresolved tension between interrogation and revelation, between setting out and arriving is the very thing that informs our most heartfelt and meritorious attitude in life and gives us the motive for our aesthetic. It provides for grace. The willingness to pitch oneself along the trajectory of this unknowingness is what lies behind the best documentary photographs. As Salgado once observed, a photograph is “more a question than a reply.”

©James Brickwood/Oculi

That photographer standing there was Nick Cubbin, a member of a group of remarkable shooters from down under who have provided us with a salient example of photographic values that from time to time are in danger of disappearing beneath the fog of market-driven notions about the purpose of reportage and the agency’s role in selling it. In the wake of the digital revolution and the restructuring (or disappearance) of many agencies, the rise of “collectives” as an alternative model of association has become a phenomenon of note, and it is well worth reviewing the accomplishments of Oculi in order to gauge the consequences of this recent development.

©Donna Bailey/Oculi

Resolutely fixed in the pursuit of a vision of transience, tentative connection, and interrogation, their power derives from a delicate equilibrium of fleeting presence, of things captured but not quite there, of suggestion and undertone. It is not surprising that many of their photographs, in fact many of their photographic projects, are situated on the flimsy line that divides mundane reality from the fantastic, which, juxtaposed, might convert that moment into a revelation. The imagination and sheer gusto with which they seize upon this enterprise has virtually guaranteed that the world should take note of their adventurousness, and instead of indulging an effete aestheticism, they have robustly gone about redefining the terms whereby meaningful work can engage an otherwise image-addled audience. By creating Oculi, they have carved out a space in which personal work is meant not just to thrive but to bust out the walls and annul the false distinction that would define such work as interesting but irrelevant, as least to the market. This is the same distinction that generally divides the collective from the agency: a collective forms to promote a certain esthetic vision, while an agency forms to sell imagery to the media. Oculi manages to straddle that divide.

©Jeremy Piper/Oculi

In their work they have promoted, in Roland Barthes’ words, a photography that eschews a “civilized code of perfect illusions” and opts instead for the “awakening of intractable reality.” Oculi is no hothouse, ArtWorld warren; it is a group of marvelously intrepid realists, dancing like butterflies but stinging like bees.

This is not to say that Oculi is all of a piece. The range of ideas and styles is impressive, though they tend to revolve around the themes I am adumbrating. One can recognize Oculi’s signature in the work of Trent Parke, one of the founding members who is now with Magnum. His Dream/Life is practically synonymous with the collective. The slash in the title says it all: this is not dreamlife, but something located on the porous line between the two. Many of the Oculi photographers are to be found travelling along this line, searching its crevices for the image that manages to hold contradictory realities in a momentary relation. This habit of walking fine lines extends to their reportage: Oculi sits between two major trends in reportage, if we may generalize a bit about what comes out of Europe and the US. While the latter tends to promulgate a straightforward newsy kind of storytelling, focusing on individual’s lives, trying to get inside their skin, giving us a closeup of what it is like to be a drug user or a senior citizen with Alzheimer’s, the former is more lyrical or poetic in its search for innovative form. While the American trend is to identify a type and then try to humanize that type by exploring it in its specific context and allowing the immediacy of the camera to lard the story with detail, the European tendency is to try and capture the feeling of the story in a form adequate to its emotional register. On the one hand, social realism a la Zola; on the other, something that is still in touch with the surrealist roots of modern photography.

One is never quite at home in an Oculi photograph: the landscape may be familiar, the people solid middle class citizens of a developed nation, but there is always something strange in the midst of the familiar, that touch of the uncanny which for Freud was the mark of modern art. Indeed the term he used was “unheimlich”-- that which is unhomely. Viktor Shklovsky, who originated the idea of ostrananie or “estrangement,” would have loved these photographs for their power to dislocate the viewer and unhinge one’s expectations. But this expression of homelessness, of eternal restive searching, does not derive from an aesthetic principle or movement, and the meaning of these works is not to be found in mere tricks of style. No chemical, digital or mechanical tic could produce these riveting portraits of horses in their multifarious identities:

©Glenn Hunt/Oculi

Or these of pigeons:

©Steven Siewert/Oculi

©Nick Moir/Oculi
They derive instead from a deep connection not just to one’s theme, but to history and nature --- after all one is not a disconnected, free floating agent. One is implicated in the whole process of living and being, and the photograph that results is a miraculous product of a simultaneously tenuous and trenchant bond between subject and object – or perhaps it be between two subjects.

©Tamara Voninski/Oculi

This is not to say that the collective is all of a piece or that its members slavishly follow a formula of sorts. Each member is utterly an individual and each project featured on the site is original, distinct and visionary – this is what distinguishes the group above all, its members each have a vision, and here we find not only the clue to its success, but the grail of all our seeking: resolute adherence to one’s vision and some measure of market viability --- both of which are supremely important to us, for we are ultimately communicators and must submit our ideas, our glimpses of truth and meaning, to the marketplace wherein our utterances are inevitably constrained. In these days of megalithic photo agencies and the numbness produced by media saturation, we could learn a lot by looking through Oculi’s collective lens.

Oculi, "you got eyes."

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Peace to Jim Johnston and Family

The indefatigable Jim Johnston, whose blog, Politics, Theory and Photography is a model of openminded and wide ranging intellectual exploration, has suffered the loss of a son -- my heart goes out to him and his family.